The heart of the matter is: we’re flawed creatures by nature. In taking a close, hard look at her own life, Americana singer-songwriter Lindsay Ellyn filters life’s deeply complex, often quite messy, character through a new song called “Dirty Fingers,” premiering today. We all grow up, and all fall down / Running from ourselves and running around, she sings over a deceptively chipper arrangement.
“I have a very fractured relationship with my father due to his destructive alcoholism that resulted in him being out of my life for long periods of time, or crashing in at random ─in unpredictable, chaotic ways,” Ellyn tells American Songwriter. “Navigating that reality my whole life turned me into a realist at a very young age and certainly shaped my perspective.”
In truth, most people want to do good, and many are victims of circumstance. “There’s a sincere willingness to do the right thing and show up as a good person,” she continues, “but life is hard and we’re all flawed, so you get what you get.”
We’re full of good intentions and full of shit / Just our Father’s struggling sons and daughters / Dipping dirty fingers in the holy water, she observes with the chorus, drawing upon Catholic Church imagery from her youth. “People bless themselves with holy water as they enter and leave the church. You have people coming in every week vowing to do good and do better,” she explains, “but people are human so they continue to make mistakes, or hurt people, or indulge in vices. It’s like dipping dirty fingers in the holy water—that’s the line and the imagery that got me started on this song.
“I believe so strongly that people bring their own experiences to music, and that greatly informs how they hear it. But I would hope people can find comfort somewhere in this song. Maybe the bridge makes them feel seen. Maybe the chorus inspires them to forgive someone in their life, or cut someone out for good and heal. Maybe a verse can help someone acknowledge a painful memory, but realize the painful things that happened to you don’t have to define you. Maybe some of the symbolism in this song makes someone want to get closer to God or dig deeper into what they believe.”
I know a bunch of daddies who don’t know their kids / They never tied a shoe or dried a tear / It is what it is, she continues unthreading sharp, honest truths. I know a bunch of mamas who never grew up / Still in all the wrong places and all the wrong arms looking for love.
Written on acoustic guitar, “Dirty Fingers” samples Ellyn’s forthcoming debut record, Queen of Nothing, recorded at Nashville’s Smoakstack. “Going into the recording session, I knew I wanted to kick this song up a notch and brought a handful of influences to the table,” she says, noting Tom Petty and The Jayhawks. Ellyn enlisted a core set of players, including Jake Finch (drums), Austin Webb (guitar), and Andrew Brown (bass), a lineup to keep a particular cohesion to the project (produced by Brendan St. Gelais). Webb tinkered around with the song’s opening riff on a 12-string, and it was an immediate hit.
“Brendan and I totally lost it. It really set the tone for how we brought this song to life in the session,” Ellyn remembers. “The band on this song and this album was so incredible, and I want to acknowledge them. They really supported me, and when I brought these songs to them, they brought so many creative ideas to the session.”
A senior copywriter by day, frequently working 12-hour days, the New Jersey native coerces herself to write on a semi-regular basis to keep her songwriting muscles up to par. “I’m someone who has to be very disciplined about time management and carving out space for songwriting, or it doesn’t happen. Trying to motivate myself to sit down and write a song can feel so daunting. But I push myself to do it because that’s the time I have to get shit done. What ultimately happens is my writing process is very sporadic. Thank God for the iPhone voice memo app. I am constantly singing random ideas into my voice memos when I’m driving, when I’m out for a run, or just throughout the day if I get an idea or think of a line. As long as I can capture it when it comes, I can go back to it later.”
The burgeoning musician, who first learned piano in elementary school, later turning to guitar in her late teens, also finds reading as necessary fuel to her work. “I try to read as much as possible to help my writing. I think that’s important,” she says. “I recently finished St. Marks is Dead by Ada Calhoun, which stirred up a lot of New York memories for me. I lived in NYC from 2002-2014, so I started a few song ideas while reading that book and hopefully some of them will make it to my next album.”
As with most songwriters, Ellyn cherishes the “self-reflection and the growth that comes along with” with the utmost care. “A lot of my songs are autobiographical and relate back to personal experiences. Working through songs can be a cathartic way for me to get very real with myself about where I’ve been and where I want to be. Even for difficult experiences where I didn’t get closure, songwriting can be a way to close the chapter in my heart, and move forward.”
Queen of Nothing officially lands next month, May 14.